He traveled far and wide across continents, countries, and civilizations at a time when the average person rarely ventured beyond their village. 

He was Harald III of Norway and remains one of the most brilliant yet enigmatic rulers of his time. Venture with us to separate fact from fiction, lore, and legend from legitimate facts.

Hard ruler or a head of great hair?

How many biographies have you read (and we, at The Viking Herald, have read more than our fair share) and felt underwhelmed, a mere repetition of dates and places, droned out by a bot with about as much personality as a wet newspaper? 

You will then, of course, excuse us here if we take a slightly different path when attempting to encapture the life story of one of the medieval period's most brilliantly enigmatic rulers, Harald Sigurdsson, a.k.a. Harald III of Norway or, as he is more commonly known, Harald Hardrada (more of his names later).

There is, however, an ongoing debate about exactly what his epithet means. Hardrada is Old Norse and has been, in modern times, translated into English as something akin to "hard in counsel." This, of course, could be a compliment, but many have included other synonyms, including "tyrannical," "severe," or, most damningly of all, "tyrant." 

For other academics, however, the currently popular interpretation is a distortion of the meaning of Hardrada. They have pointed to several later medieval sources that named him Harald Harfargi – that is Old Norse for Harald (with the) "hair beautiful."

Before we decide, once and for all, the correct definition of his epithet, whether Harald was more of a ruthless ruler or most likely to be an early medieval pin-up boy for L'Oreal, let us journey back to his teenage years.

Old gods out, new god in

Can you remember when you were 15? Now, not everyone has the picture-perfect Hollywood life but spare a thought for poor old Harald Sigurdsson. To put it mildly, he had a rather unstable start to life. 

He was born into royalty and privilege, the son of Åsta Gudbrandsdatter and her second husband. She bore her first husband, Harald Grenske, a son, Olaf. 

Young Harald and his stepbrother Olaf would be intertwined until death parted these two future kings. By the time of Harald's birth, in about 1015 CE, his older brother had climbed to the top of the slippery pole of power in Norway. He had bettered his father, a mere petty king of Vestfold, and was ruling as the King of Norway...albeit with the support of 5 powerful barons.

Olaf's long road to the Christain faith is better explained elsewhere, but all that needs to be understood is that no sooner had Olaf seized the royal reigns, he set about ruthlessly passing laws to try and stamp out any form of worship of the Old Norse religion. Pagan temples were rapidly destroyed, with Christian churches often literally built upon their rubbles. Paganism was out; Christianity was in. 

As we shall see later, ruthlessness was obviously a family trait.

This almost overnight destruction of the old gods did not sit well with everyone in Olaf's realm. By the time young Harald was coming of age, about 13 years old, some powerful barons had had enough. These barons saw their powerbase destroyed with Olaf's crusade against paganism and decided to act. 

In 1028 CE, these barons rebelled and forced Olaf to be banished from the country, along with young Harald. Though we cannot psychoanalyze Harald, especially from the comfort of a comfy 21st-century armchair, this must have been a harrowing experience for the young lad. Worse was yet to come, though.

Harald Hardrada showed exceptional military skill in military campaigns against the enemies of the Kievan Rus. Photo: Colin Smith / Harald Hardrada / CC BY-SA 2.0

A real Stikle-r for a battle

Harald and his family were forced to flee, for their lives, with King Olaf II into the Kievan Rus. 

This medieval polity, a multiethnic, multireligious, and polyglot kingdom covering huge swathes of what is now Eastern Europe and Russia, was second in size, and importance, to the Holy Roman Empire in Northern Europe. Spending two years in exile, Olaf bade his time and reconnaissance, waiting for an opportune moment to strike back.

When Olaf was forced to flee, the kingdom was placed in the hands of a regent for the mighty Cnut the Great, the man who had fought his way to the thrones of Denmark, England, and Norway, uniting them in what later scholars called the "North Sea Empire." Yet Cnut never ruled, in person, in Norway, placing a regent in his steed. 

When this regent drowned at sea in 1028 CE, Olaf seized his chance and returned with a mere 15-year-old Harald joining. They traveled back to Norway from exile via a treacherous overland route from Sweden, crossing the hazardous Jämtland mountains to launch a surprise attack and seize Nidaros, the nation's capital - modern-day Trondheim. On their path to the capital lay the farm of Stiklestad.

What little we know about the Battle of Stiklestad – which some historians have called the most consequential in all of Norwegian history – comes from a later source, the Heimskringla compiled by 13th century CE Icelandic man of letters, Snorri Sturluson

Olaf, Harald, and some 3,200 warriors were said to have been met by a "Peasant's Army" of some 14,000 men organized by powerful northern Norwegian barons, including Thorir Hund. 

The Battle, in which Harald participated as a mere teenager, would see Hund eventually kill Olaf and Harald, as well as many of his warrior brethren, were forced into exile. 

For the second time in his young life, Harald was forced to flee to the Kievan Rus.

Eastward bound and down

Having barely escaped the battlefield at Stiklestad alive, heavily wounded, Harald fled eastward and went back to his old stomping ground. 

Familial connections once again proved useful, and Harald exploited them. Prince Yaroslav the Wise, ruler of the Kievan Rus, was married to a distant relative of Harald's, which ensured him a position in the military.

The political elite of the Kievan Rus, of course, could trace their ancestry back to the Varangian Vikings that had moved, from the Scandinavian homelands, to seek fame, fortune, power, and plunder in Eastern Europe from the late 9th century CE. Harald's political and cultural connections in Norway proved decisive in Yaroslav's decision. 

In dire need of skilled military commanders – the Kievan Rus at the peripheries of Europe with the flat Eurasian steppes on their eastern flank susceptible to nomadic tribes – Yaroslav was decisive in appointing a young adult who had already experienced warfare up close and personal.

It was against one of these tribal raiders, the Pechenegs, an eternal thorn in the flank of the Kievan Rus, that Harald would win military glory. His military skill and prowess were soon evident with military campaigns against other enemies of the Kievan Rus, including the Chudes (from what is now modern-day Finland and Estonia) and against the Poles on their southern border. 

However, following a campaign against the Roman (Byzantine) Empire, his reputation of being a fierce commander would precede him. After a few years of service to the Kievan Rus, a bigger fortune (and fame) called Harald from Constantinople, the great European metropolis.

For it was in Constantinople that the man and the myth that was Harald Hardrada would be forged with iron and gold...

BBC History Extra has an overview of Harald Hardrada's life, available to read here

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